Edible Wild Plants: Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis)

Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) is a member of the honeysuckle family that grows up to thirteen feet high, with smooth, gray bark. Corky bumps cover the slender branches, and there is a spongy, white pith inside the twigs and branches.

Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis)

The opposite, feather-compound leaves may be over three feet long. The leaf is divided into 5-11 opposite, coarsely toothed, pointed, short-stalked elliptical leaflets, each 3-4″ long.

In late spring or early summer, the elder bears tiny, branched, white, lacy flowers in flat-topped to slightly rounded clusters (panicles) that spread over 6″ across.

It is readily found in swamps, wetland margins, stream banks, mesic openings. It is hardy to zone 4 and warmer parts of zone 3. This shrub grows up to 10 feet tall and likes full or partial sun and a moist, loamy soil. Once established, it is easy to grow and generally problem-free. Bloom petals are white. Fruit is bright red prior to turning purple-black.

Ripe berries and flowers are edible, but other parts of the plant (raw bark, root, and leaves) and unripe berries are poisonous, containing toxic calcium oxalate crystals.

Gather the berries like the flowers. This is quick. The real work occurs at home: Pulling small bunches of berries from their stems, and sorting the fruit from the debris on a tray, takes time.

Wild Edible Elderberry has Medicinal PropertiesAvoid unripe, green berries they’ll get you sick. Even raw ripe elderberries make some people nauseous Cooking or drying dispels the offending substance, and greatly improves the flavor. Baking this fruit in muffins, cakes and breads imbues them with a piquant crunchiness. They become the central ingredient whenever you use them in baked goods. Elderberries arenít sweet and contain no thickeners. Rely on other ingredients for these elements, especially if you’re making the European favorite, elderberry jam.

The berries have few calories and lots of nutrition. They provide very large amounts of potassium and beta-carotene, as well as sugar and fruit acids, calcium, phosphorous and vitamin C.

Looking at or even thinking about the elderberry bush evokes a flood of magical associations and images of the past, European ladies dousing their white skin with elder flower water, and crystal goblets filled with elderberry wine. In European folklore, fairies and elves would appear if you sat underneath an elder bush on midsummer night. The lovely elder possessed potent magic, with the ability to drive away witches, and kill serpents. Carrying the twigs in your pocket was a charm against certain diseases. One of these tales bears some truth: Sleeping under the elder supposedly produces a drugged, dream-filled sleep, the fragrance is actually a mildly sedative. Perhaps the visions of fairies and elves resulted from dreaming under an elder bush.

Elderberry Bush in Field

My experience with the elder indicates that much of its charmed reputation among Europeans and Native Americans comes from its ability to heal. The flowers and fruit are medicinal. Hippocrates already recognized this in 400 B.C. (He used a smaller European species with similar properties, that doesn’t grow in America.)

Due to their diuretic and detoxifying properties, people eat elderberries to lose weight. The flowers have been used in cosmetics since ancient times. Distilled elder flower water softens, tone and restores the skin. Elder flower infusion cleanses the skin, lightens freckles, and soothes sunburn. Its Bioflavinoids promote circulation and strengthen the capillaries.

During the Civil War era, it was brewed as a tea and used as a diuretic and laxative. In the 19th century, the Shakers of Shirley, MA, sold elderberry wine. They also used the bark to cure dropsy, the berries for rheumatism, and the flowers for fevers and constipation. S. canadensis was used in a wide range of Native American remedies. The Iroquois boiled the inner bark for pain and swelling from toothache.

Elder flower extract from S. canadensis and the non New England native S. nigra is currently thought to induce sweating in lower fevers and to aid in healing of colds, flues, and bronchitis. It is also used in a treatment for poison oak and ivy.

The flowers  also make a wonderful food. Try elder flower (sometimes called elderblow) fritters using your favorite tempura or pancake batter. Make a light, mild batter, so you don’t overpower the delicate flowers. Try sauteing them.

Elder flowers make a pleasant tasting tea, especially with mint. They also make a potent, fragrant wine. Steeped in vinegaróthey add flavor and strengthen the stomach.

Caution: If you have food allergies we recommend that you do not eat any part of the Elderberry plant

Warning: Elderberries with red fruit that grows in rounded clusters may make you sick. There is another shrub that looks somewhat like the elderberry. It is called herculesi club. It’s important to note the differences since this shrub has poisonous black berries. The herculesi shrub has a thorny, unbranched trunk. This is the main difference to look for as the elderberry has no thorns. Also avoid unripe green berries as they will make you sick. Sometimes the ripe berries will make you nauseous. Cooking and drying elderberries removes any harmful effects you might experience from eating them raw.

Edible Parts

  • Flowers
  • Fruits
  • Leaves


Fruit – raw or cooked. A bittersweet flavor, the fruits are about 5mm in diameter and are borne in large clusters.

They are at their best after being dried, the fresh raw fruit has a rather rank taste. The fruit is normally cooked and used in pies, jams, jellies, sauces, bread etc. Rich in vitamin C.

Some caution is advised, see notes above on toxicity.

Flowers – raw or cooked. They are often covered in batter and made into fritters. The flowers can be picked when unopened, pickled and then used as a flavoring in candies etc. They can also be soaked in water to make a drink.

A pleasant tasting tea is made from the dried flowers.

Young shoots are said to be edible when cooked and to be used as an asparagus substitute though, since the leaves are also said to be poisonous, this report should be viewed with some doubt.

How To Make Homemade Elderberry Syrup

Put ripe elderberries into a large saucepan with half their volume of water. Simmer and stir for twenty minutes. Allow to cool, then squeeze out the juice using a jelly bag or fruit press.

Measure the juice, and for every 500ml of juice add 250g muscovado sugar, a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves and a few slices of lemon. Sim­mer for 20 minutes, then strain and pour while hot into sterilized bottles.

Elderberry Syrup Dose: Take 1 teaspoonful neat every few hours for colds and ‘flu, or use it as a cordial and add boiling water to taste for a hot drink.

Where Does Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) Grow?

Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) Growing Area

How To Identify Elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis)

Elderberry Identification - Leaves

Elderberry leaves are oblong and have ‘sawtooth’ sharply serrated edges. They are arranged in opposite pairs with 5 to 7 leaves on each stem. The veins of the leaf are most prominent as they leave the lighter green midrib, they tend to fade off and narrow as they reach the edge of the leaf and there is NOT the noticeable characteristic of the vein ending in the valley of the sawtooth edges.

Elderberry Identification - Flowers

The elderberry plant products a flattened cluster up to 10 inches in diameter of tiny creamy white flowers. The flowers have rounded tipped petals and there are five. There will typically also be 5 thin white filament tubes arising from near the center of the flower and ending in a pale yellow anther tip although it is often common to see 3 or 4. The flowers bloom in late spring.

Elderberry Identification - Fruit Berries

Elderberry berries (or fruit) start out as flowers then change from green into deep purple/blackish berries when ripe and are about 1/8th of an inch in diameter or the size of a BB. The tip of the rounded berry will have a bump where it was formed from the flower. The taste is a bit tart and they are not to be eaten RAW, more than a few can make you nauseous. They grow in a flat cluster up to 10 inches in diameter.

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